Maher Ojjeh, 43, met his wife, Donna, 42, while training at Clinton Aviation in Houston in 1983. The couple married that year and later moved to Saudi Arabia, where Maher worked as a pilot for the Special Flight Services division of Saudi Air, flying members of the Saudi royal family.
Maher worked for Saudi Air for three years, during which he was on call 24 hours a day for six weeks at a time, prepared to fly Saudi princes and princesses anywhere in the world they wanted to go. At the start of the Gulf War in 1991, the couple returned to America and subsequently had two children. Three years later, the Ojjehs started a new life as franchisees for The Maids, serving households in northern Virginia. How have they adjusted to this extreme change in lifestyle? And was it really as extreme as it sounds? Here, the couple discusses the surprising similarities between flying royalty around the world and cleaning people's homes.
Franchise Zone: Maher, how long did you fly for Saudi Air?
Maher: Probably about three years. I was going to stay longer, but the Gulf War started. Donna's American, and her mom was very scared, so we decided to move to the U.S.
When you were a pilot, were you away from home a lot?
Maher: Oh yeah. When I was flying, we used to be on standby for six weeks and get 12 days off. When I was on standby, I had to be ready to fly anytime. I used to have a phone in my bathroom.
Donna: One time, after I had just moved to Saudi Arabia, he left me for a month.
How did you hear about The Maids franchise?
Maher: When we moved to Virginia, a friend of mine who owned a travel agency asked, "Why don't we open a travel agency together and then we'll expand it?" But things didn't work out between us.
At that time, we had a person cleaning our house. [Whether she showed up] was kind of hit-or-miss. We decided we could do it better, so we started searching. We looked at every maid franchise around here and fell in love with The Maids.
Was it important to you to find a business you two could run together?
Donna: I got into real estate when we came to Virginia. I didn't get to practice very long, because I had to help Maher start the franchise. Then it just started taking off, so I devoted myself full time to the business. Since the beginning, we've divided the business into two areas. He's in charge of the technical side, and I'm in charge of the administrative side.
How much has running this franchise changed your lifestyle?
Donna: In the beginning, running the franchise was difficult because it was very time-consuming. It's still time-consuming, but we were able to grow successfully and hire the personnel we needed so we don't have to work night and day like when we first started.
Maher: But now we're our own boss; we're not on standby.
Donna: That's not true. I'm on standby for my kids. They used to spend their time in day care, and that was bad. We both worked really hard, because I made a vow to spend more time with my family. We work here every weekday, but we're able to be with our kids at a moment's notice-if they need something, if they have to go to soccer games or music lessons. We have more free time because we have a very competent staff. We're very fortunate.
How does the thrill of being a pilot compare with that of running a business?
Maher: There's always turbulence, ups and downs, in business. Both [jobs] make your stomach flip-flop. With a plane, you land and you're done. With a business, [it] becomes a part of your life.
What about your past jobs has helped you run this franchise?
Maher: I used to deal with princes and princesses who wanted to go to France or to Spain. Customer service means considering [our customers] to be as important as kings or princes.
How do the customers differ?
Maher: The customers are the same, but their expectations are different. The royalty wanted to get to their destinations easily and quickly with no interaction. The Maids' customers want their homes cleaned quickly and thoroughly, but they want to know who runs the show. All our customers are considered royalty-they're the bread and butter of the business. We have some political figures in our customer base, and we respect their privacy. They're hard-working people with little free time.